Engaging exposition that is faithful to Scripture not only will explain the text; it also of biblical and theological necessity will apply the text. Unfortunately, this area displays some homiletical confusion so the church has suffered. On one hand, topical and felt-needs preaching gives significant attention to application, but it fails to expound the text and provide the necessary biblical and theological grounding for the application. On the other hand, some expositors of the Bible provide a running commentary on the text, but neglect to show the relevance of the text for the eagerly listening audience that is desperate for a word from God that will educate the mind, motivate the heart and activate the will.
Howard and William Hendricks say, “Application is the most neglected yet the most needed stage in the process. Too much Bible study begins and ends in the wrong place: It begins with interpretation, and it also ends there.” They then shock our hermeneutical and homiletical sensibilities with a startling image: “Observation plus interpretation without application equals abortion. That is, every time you observe and interpret but fail to apply, you perform an abortion on the Scripture in terms of its purpose. The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity; it was written to transform your life.”
Walt Kaiser also recognizes that application can be banished to the sidelines: A gap of crisis proportions exists between the steps generally outlined in most seminary or biblical training classes in exegesis and the hard realities most pastors face every week as they prepare their sermons. Nowhere in the total curriculum of theological studies has the student been more deserted and left to his own devices than in bridging the yawning chasm between understanding the content of Scripture as it was given in the past and proclaiming it with such relevance in the present as to produce faith, life and bona fide works.
Both ends of this bridge have at various times received detailed and even exhaustive treatments: (1) the historical, grammatical, cultural and critical analysis of the text forms one end of the spectrum; (2) the practical, devotional, homiletical and pastoral theology (along with various techniques of delivery, organization and persuasion) reflected in collections of sermonic outlines for all occasions forms the other. Who has mapped out the route between these two points?
This article provides a map that crosses the bridge from exposition to application and will demonstrate its essential nature in a healthy and holistic homiletical strategy. The place to begin is with a good, solid definition and description.
What Is Text-Driven Application?
Application in expository or text-driven preaching can be defined as “the process whereby the expositor takes a biblical truth of the text and applies it to the lives of his audience, proclaiming why it is relevant for their lives, and passionately encouraging [it] to make necessary changes in [its life] in a manner congruent with the original intent of the author.”
To this excellent definition, we would add that the application should be God-centered and Christ-focused, fitting into the “grand redemptive storyline of the Bible” and the pattern of “Creation ~ Fall ~ Redemption ~ Consummation.” What characterizes this kind of preaching?
First, text-driven application is grounded in biblical truth gained through historical, grammatical, literary and theological analyses of the biblical text. Application necessarily flows from our exegesis and exposition. The order is not optional. It is essential. Practical application must find its foundation in biblical exposition.
Second, text-driven application must be based on the author’s intended meaning found in the text. Authorial intent determines and dictates application. Because we believe the ultimate author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit of God, we dare not trifle or manipulate the plain sense of Scripture to fit any preconceived agenda with respect to how we want to apply the text in our sermon. That approach is homiletical malpractice worthy of pastoral disbarment.
Third, text-driven application should demonstrate the relevance and practical nature of biblical truth for the listeners in their present life context. The Bible does not need to be made relevant. It is relevant now and forever as revealed, eternal truth. However, the preacher has the responsibility to unfold and make clear the Bible’s relevance.
Fourth, text-driven application must include practical illustrations, examples and suggestions so the audience can adopt and model lives after the biblical truth being taught. The best place to begin is with biblical examples. In particular, the Old Testament contains a reservoir of resources. One should then proceed to contemporary examples, taking into careful consideration the specific context in which one ministers the Word. In this sense, a cross-cultural contextualization in good preaching must not be ignored, especially when we find ourselves in an increasingly missiological context, even in America. David Hesselgrave is extremely helpful at this point:
“Contextualization can be defined as the attempt to communicate the message of the person, works, Word and will of God in a way that is faithful to God’s revelation, especially as it is put forth in the teachings of the Holy Scripture, and that is meaningful to respondents in their respective cultural and existential contexts. Contextualization is verbal and nonverbal and has to do with the theologizing, Bible translation, interpretation and application, incarnational life-style, evangelism, Christian instruction, church planting and growth, church organization, worship style—indeed with all those activities involved in carrying out the Great Commission.”
Fifth, text-driven application must persuade and exhort listeners to respond in obedient faith to the truths of Holy Scripture. York and Blue say, “Sermon application must persuade listeners that they should conform their lives to the biblical truths presented and encourages them to do so, warning them of the negative consequences of failure in this regard.” Jay Adams adds that preachers should “make scriptural truths so pertinent to members of their congregations that they not only understand how those truths should effect changes in their lives, but also feel obligated and perhaps eager to implement those changes.”
Why Is Text-Driven Application Necessary?
Application in preaching helps us answer two important questions based on the exposition of God’s Word: (1) So what? (2) Now what? In other words, how does the Bible speak to me today; and what do I do about it? So important is this two-fold component of preaching that the father of modern exposition, John Broadus, said, “The application in a sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done…Spurgeon, says, ‘Where the application begins, there the sermon begins.’…Daniel Webster once said, and repeated it with emphasis, ‘When a man preaches to me, I want him to make it a personal matter, a personal matter, a personal matter!’ It is our solemn duty thus to address all men, whether they wish it or not.”
Text-driven application is necessary because it requires a decision on the part of the listener. Further, if done well, it provides a specific action plan that allows the Spirit of God to take biblical truth and make it a part of who we are and are becoming in Christ (
First, it is one of the main purposes for God’s revelation. God wants us to know Him, love Him and obey Him. The act of proclaiming biblical truth is incomplete without the call to obey. Second, it brings balance to the information element in preaching. Knowing precedes doing, but knowing must lead to doing. Anything else will come up short of the intended goal of biblical exposition. Third, it focuses Scripture on the genuine needs of the congregation. Sin brings separation, sorrow, pain and death. Ours is a hurting world. Application speaks to those needs and provides the healing balm of divine truth.
Fourth, it makes biblical principles specific to real life situations. Addressing the whole person with the whole truth of Scripture is what good application does. Fifth, it provides the necessary bridge between the world of the Bible and the world in which we live. Application shows us that our problems ultimately are the same as those of the ancients. Sin is our problem, and Christ is the answer. Some things remain the same across the centuries. Wayne McDill provides helpful insight concerning the right use and necessity of text-driven application:
Application is more than just taking the sermon truth and attacking the congregation with it. Application presents the implications of biblical truth for the contemporary audience. It is a call for action, for putting the principles of Scripture to work in our lives. It deals with attitudes, behavior, speech, lifestyle and personal identity. It appeals to conscience, values, conviction, to commitment to Christ.
John Calvin, the great Reformation theologian, also saw the essential and necessary nature of text-driven application. He said it would impact how and what we teach to the congregation in our charge and under our watchful care:
What advantage would there be if we were to stay here a day and I were to expound half a book without considering you or your profit and edification?…We must take into consideration those persons to whom the teaching is addressed…For this reason let us note well that they who have this charge to teach, when they speak to a people, are to decide which teaching will be good and profitable so they will be able to disseminate it faithfully and with discretion to the usefulness of everyone individually.
How Do We Do Text-Driven Application?
Timothy Warren is most certainly correct, “[Preaching] is not complete until God’s people think and act differently for having heard the Word expounded.” Text-driven preaching has as its goal the formation of a community of believers who think and live differently as a result of their confrontation with the Word of God. Nothing less than changed lives will satisfy the faithful expositor. Pastor Rick Warren expresses this point well:
I’ll say it over and over: The purpose of preaching is obedience. Every preacher in the New Testament—including Jesus—emphasized conduct, behavioral change and obedience. You only really believe the parts of the Bible that you obey. People say, “I believe in tithing.” Do they tithe? No? Then they don’t believe in it. That is why you should always preach for response, aiming for people to act on what is said. John did this: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (
As we prepare to set forth our method, several observations should guide our process. Let us again draw on the insights of Pastor Warren. He notes nine.
1. All behavior is based on a belief.
2. Behind every sin is a lie I believe.
3. Change always starts in the mind.
4. To help people change, we must change their beliefs first.
5. Trying to change people’s behavior without changing their belief is a waste of time.
6. The biblical term for “changing your mind” is repentance.
7. You do not change people’s minds; the applied Word of God does.
8. Changing the way I act is the fruit of repentance.
9. The deepest kind of preaching is preaching for repentance.
Faithful expositors are not only responsible for explaining and expounding on the meaning of the text; they also are responsible for applying the text for the purpose of a life-changing verdict from the audience. We are called to be doers of the Word, not just listeners of the Word. Therefore, we must instruct and inspire our people to apply Holy Scripture to their everyday lives. How, then, do we do it?
First, your application should be Christocentric. No one has said this better than Dennis Johnson:
“[P]reaching must be Christ centered, must interpret biblical texts in their redemptive-historical contexts, must aim for change, must proclaim the doctrinal center of the Reformation (grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone) with passion and personal application, and must speak in a language that connects with the unchurched in our culture, shattering their stereotypes of Christianity and bringing them face to face with Christ, who meets sinners’ real needs—felt and unfelt.”
Drawing upon the insights of Timothy Keller, a pastor in New York City, Johnson adds, “What the unbeliever and the believer need to hear in preaching is the gospel with its implications for a life lived in confident gratitude in response to amazing grace.”
This observation is crucial and must drive all aspects of biblical proclamation. Jesus is the hero of the whole Bible. He is the Savior in that He delivers us from the penalty of sin (justification), the power of sin (sanctification) and ultimately the presence of sin (glorification).
Text-driven application is particularly interested in sanctification. Our people must understand that although they are saved by Jesus, they mature into Christ-likeness through Jesus. Mark Driscoll, a pastor in Seattle, calls this emphasis on Jesus as the hero the “Christological Question” in preaching. “How is Jesus the Hero-Savior?” He notes, “The Bible is one story in which Jesus is the hero. Therefore, to teach and preach the Bible properly, we continually have to lift Him up as the hero. Any sermon in which the focus is not the person and work of Jesus will lack spiritual authority and power because the Holy Spirit will not bless the teaching of any hero other than Jesus…There is an ongoing debate as to the purpose of the sermon and whether it should focus on converting the lost or maturing the saved. The apparent conflict between the preaching for seekers and preaching for believers is resolved simply by noting that both need to repent of sin and trust in Jesus to live a new life empowered by the Spirit.”
Second, weave your application into the outline or movements of your sermon. In other words, let the outline of your message be the application points of your sermon. Provide them in complete sentences that are clear and concise, in the present tense and in harmony with the plain meaning of the text of Scripture. We should recognize that some applications of a text more readily will apply to the mind (belief); other applications more readily will apply to the will (behavior). Some actually will speak to both. The key is that the application must be faithful to the meaning of the text.
Third, aim for specific action on the part of your people. Fuzzy thinking is deadly to any aspect of a sermon, especially in the portions dealing with the application of the biblical text. Using the imagery of the Bible, we must remember we are preaching to sheep (
This weakness is one of the deadly ones of the so-called “New Homiletic.” We cannot hope our people will “fill in the blanks” of sermon application. Practical steps that are challenging but obtainable by God’s grace and Christ’s strength are our goal. We cannot beat them over the head with oughts without providing hows. Challenge your men to be leaders in the church and home, to be godly husbands and fathers; but make sure you show them how.
Fourth, tie application to illustrations and provide some practical examples of Scripture at work. Again, the text must drive this union. Some examples will appeal to the mind and be deeply theological. Others will move the heart and give attention to the practical. Warren says, “If you want your people to share their faith with others, then tell stories about people in your church who are already doing that. If you want your people to care for the sick, tell stories about people in your church who care for the sick. If you want your people to be friendly to visitors, tell stories about people who were friendly to visitors.”
Fifth, express your application in the form of a universal principle. Look for that which is true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. Remember the ultimate principle: The solution to any problem is a person, and His name is Jesus. As you make known this universal principle, be in line with the needs, interests, questions and problems of today. This awareness is the key to relevance. The chart below clarifies what we mean: Your principles must be in harmony with the general tenor and totality of Scripture. The analogy of faith is crucial here: “Scripture will not contradict Scripture.” As you utter these principles, be specific enough to indicate a course of action. Always ask any text these 13 questions:
1. Is there an example for me to follow?
2. Is there a sin to avoid or confess?
3. Is there a promise to claim?
4. Is there a prayer to repeat?
5. Is there a command to obey?
6. Is there a condition to meet?
7. Is there a verse to memorize?
8. Is there an error to avoid?
9. Is there a challenge to face?
10. Is there a principle to apply?
11. Is there a habit to change, start or stop?
12. Is there an attitude to correct?
13. Is there a truth to believe?
Sixth, saturate your mind in terms of the many relationships of life. Examine the text with education, social life, business, church, values, thought life, worldview, marriage, family and sex in view. Release your mind to run freely and explore the various possible relationships to which the text speaks. Be realistic. Think concretely, not abstractly. Work to see the text vicariously through the eyes of those you shepherd. Hans Finzel in Unlocking the Scriptures highlights four broad categories with specific considerations under each:
A. With God
1. A truth to understand
2. A command to obey
3. A prayer to express
4. A challenge to heed
5. A promise to claim
6. A fellowship to enjoy
B. With Yourself
1. A thought or word to examine
2. An action to take
3. An example to follow
4. An error to avoid
5. An attitude to change or guard against
6. A priority to change
7. A goal to strive for
8. A personal value or standard to hold up
9. A sin to forsake
C. With Others
1. A witness to share
2. An encouragement to extend
3. A service to do
4. A forgiveness to ask
5. A fellowship to nurture
6. An exhortation to give
7. A burden to bear
8. A kindness to express
9. A hospitality to extend
10. An attitude to change or guard against
11. A sin to forsake
D. With Satan
1. A person to resist
2. A device to recognize
3. A temptation to resist
4. A sin to avoid and confess
5. A piece of spiritual armor to wear
Seventh, remember the meaning of the text is always one, but the applications are many. Jerry Vines and David Allen have rightly argued, following E.D. Hirsch, that a distinction must be made between meaning and significance (what we call application). They note, “When the biblical exegete comes to a text of Scripture, he can proceed on the premise that there is a determinate meaning there. His job is to discover this meaning through exegesis. Having done this, there remains the further task of applying this meaning to modern man…We propose then that a text has one primary meaning with multiple significances or applications of that meaning.”
Eighth, consciously put into practice the application(s) gleaned from the exegesis of the text. Never forget that you have not applied the text until you have appropriated and put into practice what you have learned. Indeed, the application and practice of the text will serve as a commentary on your understanding of the biblical truth. It will be extremely difficult for you to apply to others what you have not first applied to yourself. Granted, no one can apply everything, but you should diligently and intentionally be working to apply something.
What are you trusting God for right now? In what ways are you looking to Jesus and appropriating His grace? What is your action plan to experience change in what you think and how you live? You should ask yourself these questions before you present them to your audience. Howard and William Hendricks provide a helpful comparison between where we have been/are and where we hope to be/move.
Ninth, beware of the challenges and problems that the application of biblical texts involves. Howard and William Hendricks warn us of what they call “substitutes for application.” A summary and a quick survey of the five substitutes they mention will be beneficial for our study.
1. We substitute interpretation for application.
It is easy to settle for knowledge rather than change. That resignation is tragic because as Hendricks says, “according to the Bible, to know and not to do is not to know at all.” Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (
2. We substitute superficial obedience for substantive change in life.
Here, we apply biblical truth to areas where we already are applying it, not to new areas. The result is no noticeable and genuine change in our lives. A blind spot remains so the truth never affects that part of a life needing change.
3. We substitute rationalization for repentance.
Hendricks notes, “Most of us have a built-in, early-warning system against spiritual change. The moment truth gets too close, too convicting, an alarm goes off, and we start to defend ourselves. Our favorite strategy is to rationalize sin instead of repenting of it.”
4. We substitute an emotional experience for a volitional decision.
There is nothing wrong with responding emotionally to spiritual truth. However, if that response is our only one, then our spirituality is nothing more than an empty shell with nothing inside. We are aiming for a volitional response to God’s truth. We are aiming for substantive, life-changing decisions based on what the Scriptures say.
5. We substitute communication for transformation.
“We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.” We think that if we can speak eloquently or convincingly about a point of Scripture, we are on safe ground. However, God is not fooled. He knows our hearts. He knows our actions.
Tenth, be on guard against “the heresy of application.” Here we make an application that, though true, does not come from the text we are expounding. Haddon Robinson calls this kind of application “a good truth applied in the wrong way.” Exposition and application must be true to the text before us.
The Westminster Directory for Public Worship states, “The preacher is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but is to bring it home to special use by application to his hearers.” To do this effectively, we must know the Scriptures and the culture of our people, the world of the Bible and the world in which we find ourselves. Eric Alexander says it well:
We are thus to be contemporary in our application. For that reason, it is important that we know the world and the pattern of thinking in the world in which we live. For that reason, too, it is important that we know the world in which our congregation lives. Evangelicals traditionally have been strongest in knowing the Scripture and weakest in knowing the world. Others mostly have been stronger in knowing the world and weakest in knowing the Scripture, but there is no reason why these two things should be mutually exclusive.
Of course, to do this well we must ask the Holy Spirit of God first to apply the biblical truth to the heart of the man of God. Hear Alexander once more:
Now of course we will recognize and acknowledge that it is the Holy Spirit who is the true applier of the Word. That is a vital, central, basic truth for all our thinking. It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and uses it as the sword that pierces to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. That does not excuse us from the labor of asking, “How ought I to apply these truths to my own conscience and then to the conscience of this people?”
The great puritan John Owen said, “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others, which preacheth itself in His own soul. If the Word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”
Let our Lord apply His Word first to your heart. Then you will be well-prepared for Him to use you to apply that same Word to others.
Adapted from Engaging Exposition by Daniel Akin, Bill Curtis and Stephen Rummage (Nashville: B&H Books, 2011). Used by permission.
These were two charts in the book. We probably won’t need them, but here’s the text just in case:
There Are Two Histories and You Must Bridge the Horizons
Colossae A.D. 60—63
Truth revealed out of “the then”
Original History Our History
Eternal Christological Truth that Bridges the Two Worlds
Twenty-First Century Context
Truth reborn into “the now”
• Old beliefs
• Old values
• Old behaviors
• Old habits
• Old relationships
• Old outlook
• Old purpose
• Old environment
• Old job/career plans
• Old character
• Old morals
• Old desires/passions
• Old communication/language
• New beliefs
• New values
• New behaviors
• New habits
• New relationships
• New outlook
• New purpose
• New environment
• New job/career plans
• New character
• New morals
• New desires/passions
• New communication/language